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Maurya Simon to Richard Tillinghast
“I wrote this letter 32 years ago, when I was 21 and living in Madras, South India. It's addressed to the poet and teacher I had as an undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley, Richard Tillinghast, who now teaches at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor."
April 21, 1972
I left Madras behind me this morning, so I won't be able to look into the questions you had about Annie Besant, Wm. Butler Yeats, and the Theosophical Society, until I return in several weeks. Yes, at last I am on the train going south. There is a man sitting across from me who has been trying to strike up a conversation since he first passed by my then empty compartment on the way to the john. He saw me sitting alone and came and sat opposite me, asking at the same time where I was going. I didn't answer. He asked another question and I was silent. He left, returned with his baggage, and sat down again. He asked me what the name of my book was. I ignored him. So, now, for the last hour, he has been staring at me unceasingly. At one point, he put his foot on mine. I grimaced, moved my foot away. I am pretending to be copying something out of my book into this letter. Perhaps he'll think I'm a CIA agent who's taking notes on a "suspicious" character. I think I mentioned in an earlier letter how distrustful people here are about the CIA--rightly so, I'm sure. It's rather difficult to write on the train, but I would like to describe the countryside we're sailing by. India's landscapes make my heart soar, my soul expand with joyous appreciation. Off in the distance, mountains spring up like overgrown boulders or sleeping, scrub-covered sand mounds. Cumbersome grey clouds fill the sky with the promise of wetter times and ease the day into flitting shadows, some refuge from the glaring of a relentless sun. And there are mountains like lotuses floating on the smooth red earth. Perfect and seemingly unmoved or altered by time. Emerald rice fields roll by, like lush and finely groomed, regal carpets. Farmers in only brown dhotis, women in sarees pulled up around their knees, are all bent over the earth--tending, weeding, stroking, caressing, and nourishing her.
Ah, we have reached a station. Tired and quick-eyed vendors are singing their wares--"Chai, chai," or "Biskeets," or "Varaparam." They always linger at my window and I always say "ille" [no]. Train stations: hot, tired, the smell of urine and exhaust, diesel, and over-ripe fruit. Beggars board from one station to the next, only half-expecting handouts. People are sleeping on benches, on the cement, and on exhausted drinking fountains, and also by the tracks, on gunnysacks on the ground. Flies explore their faces, dogs sniff their feet. Red pharaoh-capped and khaki bermuda-clad petty police officers, white-jacketed and name-tagged railway officials, either stand around looking omniscient and officious, or they scurry to and fro with carbon-copied lists and pads filling their arms and hands. Porters, taking big, slow steps, push dummies and loaded carts. Young ladies in purple, red, and green sarees stand biting their nails, drinking coffee, or talking in nervous groups. Men with big bellies, in quasi-Western dress, wind their watches or talk with the railway officials in a respectful but familiar manner.
And the whistle blows, so we are off again. I have three compartment mates now. They are very curious as to what in the hell I could possibly be writing. What am I doing in a men's compartment, anyway? We have long passed the fields of sugar cane and bananas, plantains. The "Silent Starer" and I have become acquainted. He has been quite polite--bought me grapes, offered me a bed sheet for a nap. I told him I was meeting my husband in Thanjavur. "How many children?" he then asks. "None, so far," I say, and feel those guilt pangs that always prick me for even the smallest lie.
Now we roll by acres of dry, dull land that's subtly brightened by rows of wiry cashurina fir trees. They vaguely remind me of the yak tails the Brahmin priests use during a temple puja, and when fanning the icons of gods or goddesses. Here and there a palm tree sprouts up amidst the front lines, like an unavoidable, but friendly intruder. And the clouds rise like powdered-blue temples. Richard, you would include them in a poem, I know-- for they look like you could mount their stairs to a Persian heaven. I have reached Tanjore. I must sign off. Until my next epistle—be well.
Referring to Maurya Simon’s newest book, Ghost Orchid (Red Hen Press), former Los Angeles Times Book Review editor Jack Miles reminds us, “The great strength of her language has always been its lush sensuality,” and B. H. Fairchild calls it “brilliantly crafted but also Blakean in its powers of illumination and insight”. Maurya teaches in the Creative Writing Department at the University of California, Riverside, and lives in Angeles National Forest in the San Gabriel Mountains, in Southern California.